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Global Crisis?

Randall Honold


The historian Geoffrey Parker, in his recent book, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change & Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century, describes the truly awful time humanity had of it the world over in the sixteen hundreds. “The Little Ice Age” spawned extreme weather events and severely destabilized agricultural output. Wars over natural resources were vicious and protracted. Communicable diseases ran rampant. The estimate that one third of humanity perished doesn’t seem to be out of line.
In the midst of this prolonged hardship, many authorities came to realize that the scale and duration of these phenomena were unprecedented. Explanations for their occurrence were mainly theodical, that is, based on the assumption that one or another god was punishing people for doing evil.
It’s an illuminating exercise to compare the world today with that of three hundred fifty years ago. Are we in the midst of a catastrophe, too? Will we see billions fewer people on the planet a century from now? Even as I ask these questions, knowing that neither I nor anyone knows the answers, we are witness to events whose causes and effects are not impossible to comprehend, when it comes down to it. Our more materialistic explanations have replaced religious ones, even among prominent figures such as Pope Francis, Patriarch Bartholomew I, and the imams behind the Islamic Declaration on Global Climate Change. Causes of current events are, ironically, harder to imagine.
There are approximately sixty million forcibly displaced people at present. I know this figure, I see the images of refugees, I watch video of sprawling camps. How do I imagine their lives ought to look instead? Certainly not like much of the twentieth century, when 160 million people were casualties of war alone. The carbon dioxide humanity has been pumping into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution is changing the planet’s climate. What do I image the world should look like at pre-industrial levels of 270 ppm of CO2? Surely not like the seventeenth.
Parker closes his study with a call for governments around the world to put more resources into measures that would prevent another period as calamitous as the seventeenth century. I’d like that too. I’ll even pay more taxes for it. Plus give up meat, drive a car much less, and stop buying so much stuff. But I’m suspicious of my own ability to imagine a globe that isn’t in crisis. What if my imagination is conjuring up an even worse world?
Let me be clear: I am not saying we humans are not in multiple-crisis mode. I am saying that any “crisis” is a decision to make a “cut” from the whole and foreground something. All crises, like all decisions, forget (sometimes temporarily, sometimes for longer) their context. Perhaps we can start calling that context what it is – an ecology. Whereas we can get by in the current mode of operation, lurching from crisis to crisis, we probably can’t keep getting by forever without thinking and acting (same diff) ecologically. Being ecological isn’t replacing a shallow, contingent, temporary reality with something larger, deeper, and contextual. Real human beings are suffering at the border of Croatia today. Real sequoias are being consumed by fire in California. And real contexts are likewise under threat.
Global crisis? When not, back then? Where not, nowadays? In the future? Of course, everywhere. So let’s not wait for an historian to tell us what we should have done, three centuries from now.


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blackwater woods by mary oliver


Via *synthetic zero* . . . must-see visual at original site.

Originally posted on synthetic zero:

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it
to let it go.

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Report from a Besieged World: Refugee Crisis Devolving into Chaos

Originally posted by S. C. Hickman in dystopian reflections, refugee crisis.

See here.

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SLSA “After Biopolitics” Conference Program Posted

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The Augmentation Paradox


Just a follow up to a recent post by R. S. Bakker.  This post also written by Bakker.  See “The Knowledge of Wisdom Paradox” here.

Originally posted on Three Pound Brain:

So, thanks to the great discussion on the ‘Knowledge of Wisdom Paradox,’ here’s a sharper way to characterize the ecological stakes of the posthuman:

The Augmentation Paradox: The more you ‘improve’ some ancestral capacity, the more you degrade all ancestral capacities turning on the ancestral form of that capacity.

It’s not a paradox in the formal sense, of course. Also note that the dependency between ancestral capacities can be a dependency within or between individuals. Imagine a ‘confabulation detector,’ a device that shuts down your verbal reporting system whenever the neural signature of confabulation is detected, effectively freeing you from the dream world we all inhabit, while effectively exiling you from all social activities requiring confabulation (you now trigger ‘linguistic pause’ alerts), and perhaps dooming you to suffer debilitating depression.

It seems to me that something like this has to be floating around somewhere–in debates regarding transhumanism especially. If most…

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The Uncanny Expo Milano 2015

Randall Honold

Computer game designers describe the “uncanny valley” as the place where the look of animated creatures becomes disconcerting to us. We’re okay with caricatures or extreme realism, but the narrow in-between can be downright creepy. Recall that well before the printed circuit, Sigmund Freud described the uncanny as the “strangely familiar,” which, once we start becoming aware of it, seemingly haunts us at every turn.

I was in an uncanny place recently, a place both not real enough and all-too real at the same time: Expo Milano 2015: Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. Its intention is to be an axis mundi for sustainability. However, the genius loci of the place isn’t represented by the classical figure bearing a cornucopia, drinking bowl, and snake; instead, awaiting the visitor are twenty-first century symbols which perhaps reveal more than intended by expo organizers.

I had never been to an expo. One of the first gifts I can remember receiving though – as a four-year old – was a commemorative coin from the 1964 New York World’s Fair. My godmother brought it back just for me and I can still see its golden shine and feel its raised-line image of the Unisphere. It was a coincidence that my spouse and I were going to be in Italy this summer, and since Milan was on our itinerary, I figured why not check out the expo? Before leaving I had seen news reports about protests and read an article here and there reviewing the event (and this one appeared after my return) so I had a general sense of its context, contradictions, and controversy. I expected meh and got it aplenty. But it also delivered moments of disbelief, engagement, frustration, and hope. Not to mention awesome artisanal gelato flavored with single-source chocolate from the Ivory Coast, and a bar of ginseng soap from that most exotic of places to an American – North Korea. It was, overall, a singular experience of the ecological uncanny – a strangely familiar experience of neoliberal flat-world claims colliding with environmental realities.

A few riffs, pics, and recollections:

You still see graffiti like this in a lot of places around Milan, months after the protests that took place on the opening day of the Expo, May 1. (Protesters got an unexpected two-fer with this falling on May Day; it’s open to speculation whether corporate sponsors were sticking it in the eye of the counterculture or oblivious to the valence of the date.) Other popular images include the raised fist of solidarity against the expo and equating event organizers with Mafiosi.


Milan was a pioneer in urban bike sharing with their “BikeMi” system. And thousands of residents are moving about the city all the time on their own bikes. So, naturally, I figured that biking to the expo would be the way to go. I asked the concierge about a rental for 10km trip from my hotel to the grounds but the shop he called refused, worried they’d lose their asset because there wasn’t a safe place to park it there. I found this perplexing, but when I exited the train stop – newly built for the expo – and headed toward the main entrance, I saw it was true. This is the inexcusable solution intrepid bikers had to resort to:


I visited on a Tuesday, which I didn’t expect to be the day of the week with the highest attendance, but I was surprised when I entered and observed an approximately one-to-one ratio between staff/guides and paying guests. The situation inside the huge Zero Pavilion – a kind of introduction to humanity’s relationship to food by way of dioramas, jumbotrons, and interactive kiosks – was the same. Were the reports of dismal turnout I’d been reading true? Or were people ending it all here, like Edward G. Robinson in “Soylent Green,” in front of moving images of “nature?”


I also puzzled over plastic livestock all apparently heading out the door…


…but on the midway their meaning and destiny became clear.


To do justice to all the participating nations’ buildings alone would take at least three full days; I admit I spent only five hours at the whole expo. The countries are grouped mainly by the predominant types of food produced there. “Fruits and Legumes,” for instance. But India, the world’s largest producer of legumes by far, aspires to a higher status than its cluster-mates Benin, Guinea, and Kyrgyzstan. Thus its pavilion stands apart. As do the structures that represent China, the U.S., and, of course, Italy as home team. The organization is loose, in other words. It all makes for randomized stroll, as if following a world map put through a blender. To my inexpert eye the architecture commonly displays vernacular elements (Qatar); often conveys emerging or power or aspirations thereto (Kazakhstan); sometimes pulls out all the stops (Angola); and occasionally fails at ground level despite its thematic ambition (South Korea’s is supposed to look like traditional ceramic cookware):





National pride is everywhere expressed primarily through food, secondarily through energy, and after that anything counts. The French have a lingerie display. Indonesians perform dance routines, the Czechs blast europop, and the Dutch exude cool charm with their caravan food trucks. The tension between sustaining the whole earth and rational use of the one world’s resources is omnipresent, to wit:


The inside of the model supermercato looks like any other high-end grocery, alas:


And there were people actually buying food to take home! Mind you, it was 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the nearest exit was a 45-minute walk away, and out the door was going fresh dairy and meat, frozen convenience food, etc. Incomprehensible.

It was at about this point that I began to search for redemption. Like an oasis came the Iranian pavilion. It’s a lovely, modest, light structure that shelters garden plots of herbs essential to traditional Persian cuisine. Rice, spices, and cookware are for sale. They got it just right.


Then I found, tucked away in the “Islands” cluster, the poignant Maldives display. It’s a lone room, silent, with photographs of indigenous undersea life and island culture. The message was obvious: all of this beauty will be gone soon, when the rising oceans inundate the lands. Nothing more needed.


Heartened, I trekked to the Slow Food section, what I wanted to see most of all. Nearly off the map at the far end of the park – marginalized in every sense – are its three open-air, destined-for-reuse, wooden structures. Resembling the shelter buildings we see in U.S. public parks, they housed a library, performance space, café, and meaningful displays that summarize extraordinarily well the effects of mechanized agriculture on the earth and its citizens.

I couldn’t help reflecting on how slow food was anomalous yet central to the expo – perhaps the most uncanny experience of my day. I sat in the library for a good while wondering again: Who is this expo for? Are any hearts and minds being changed? What can the already the converted (like me) get out of it? Is this venue the right medium for these messages? Can it scale? Could it travel? Does ROI as a measure even apply here, and how would it be calculated? It was sitting here that it occurred to me the concept of the “uncanny” might be the best one to capture the experience of Expo Milano 2015. The expo’s sensual excesses reminded me that the uncanny comes to us aesthetically, today. It’s there, haunting us, in the what’s always around us – plants, animals, water, air, sunlight, fossil fuels. We coexist with these familiar things so intimately that, strangely, even though they touch our lives in multiple ways every day, we don’t pay attention to them.


I got up and headed to the exit thinking, if nothing else, I want a big fat corn dude at my side from now on.


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Ethics, Aesthetics, Ecologies: Part II


Popular neuroscience suggests that affect underlies ethical decision. Though not all of the contemporary brain-obsessed arguments are compelling, traditional psychology, at least since William James, has forwarded similar hypotheses. Scholars of rhetoric also recognize the force of the pathos appeal, and have done so for thousands of years. If our emotional responses impact our ethical decisions and aesthetic response is also related to the emotions, then ethics and aesthetics may be more closely related than contemporary scholars in the liberal arts and sciences have generally assumed or asserted.

But what do we assume about the basic nature of the relationship between aesthetic response and affect? Do we merely love the beautiful, or do we find beauty in that which we love? For example, do we become attached to a natural place, because it is picturesque or because we associate it with meaningful events and other attachments?   Or, if such responses are “inherited,” either because they are instinctual or culturally conditioned, do ethical and aesthetic values co-emerge?

Related to these questions are the backward and forward looking problems of environmental degradation and generational amnesia. On one hand environmental degradation suggests that we may become less attached to wild places in the future as they are diminished and or degraded. On the other hand, generational amnesia suggests that our aesthetic standards may also be degraded. In a twenty-first century urban environment, for example, a small, roof-top garden may have more value (affective and aesthetic), by sheer contrast with its surroundings, than a large vegetable or flower garden in a more traditional, rural environment. Still, as we become increasingly overwhelmed with technology, it may also be that our appreciation for place and natural beauty is diminishing overall, as our early memories and attachments are less likely to be formed out of doors. And this trend may be contrary to an ethical imperative of caring for more places and more creatures. But what if an ethic of inclusiveness included caring about, even loving the ugly?

Institute for Nature and Culture co-founder and theorist of restoration ecology, Bill Jordan has raised the issue of restoring species that pose a threat to human interests, even a threat to human life—rattle snakes, for example (Making Nature Whole, 5). Jordan’s approach contrasts significantly with the idea of restoring “natural capital.” Is the latter approach truly ethical if it primarily serves human interests? Can we be sure that we even understand our own interests—that we can predict the future in this sense? Could a more inclusive ethical approach address this problem? And how would such an ethic relate to aesthetics?

The concepts of generational amnesia and degraded environmental brought to my mind the example of the L. A. River. The river (qua river) ceased to exist when it was replaced with a massive concrete channel built in the 1950’s and 1960’s.   Angelinos literally forgot the river because it disappeared, almost without a trace. Instead water flowed into and out of “the wash.” The mostly dry, concrete channel became an icon of the apocalypse, in Hollywood films such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and Escape from LA (1996), and indeed complex ecosystems, as worlds, were destroyed by this massive human intervention. But somehow the river was not completely forgotten.

In the late 1990’s a group of visionary citizens conceived of the absurd notion of restoring the river in a hybrid fashion. From these early initiatives emerged the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan.[1] What I found most remarkable about this plan, when I examined it, were the rich renderings (future simulations) of the river as an ecosystem, a place for recreation, and a cultural venue—a place in which to form attachments. In the past few years the restoration has achieved gradual but marked success with Angelinos now actually kayaking in certain areas.

So how did such an ugly place become the object of attention and care? Did citizens become interested in the “river” because they saw a potential for beauty, or did it become beautiful because it received care and attention? I’m not sure these are answerable or even meaningful alternatives.   What may be meaningful, though, is the implication that ethical decision and action require us to look beyond surface features to the spirit of a place—the spirit of a creature. The potential for beauty may be in everything we behold, as a function of our care and attention.

Image Reference: Los Angels River Revitalization Master Plan: Chapter 2, page 4


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